Nebula Award-Winning Novellas by Greenberg, Martin H., ed., 1994

Nebula Award-Winning Novellas by Greenberg, Martin H., ed.

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This volume was produced by the SFWA to promote and make available the ten of the Hugo and Nebula Award winning novellas that were produced between 1970 and 1990. The collection is excellent, with one glaring exception noted below, and I was glad to have these lost works available to me again. However, this anthology suffers from the same error that seems to mark every SFWA anthology that I have ever seen, and that is that there is no introductory or closing material for any of the stories. The reader is just left, often with an incredible story, and nothing to put it in context. Most of the authors here are very well known, but still it would have been better to give some background information about the author, the story or the magazine it was originally published in. Four out of five stars.

Ill Met in Lankhmar, by Fritz Leiber, (1970): I am always reticent about picking up a book that is a part of a long series, because I am afraid that I will get drawn into something that will suck all my time and keep me from reading a variety of books. That is why I have stayed away from George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire series, and Tad Williams' Otherland books. And even though I really do not like fantasy, I found myself drawn deeply into Fritz Leiber's Ill Met in Lanhkmar, which is a later entry in his multi-volume Fafhrd and Gray Mouser series of stories. Fritz Leiber is an incredible writer, both technically and stylistically, and I have to say that this book may be one of his absolute best. Five out of five stars.

For those of you who are not yet fans of Leiber's Fafhrd and Gray Mouser series, they tell the continuing tales of these two master thieves. Ill Met in Lankhmar was written in 1970 after many other novels and short stories, but tells the story of how these two anti-heroes met. Fafhrd and the Mouse one evening surreptitiously ambushed two members of the Lankhmar Thieves’ Guild as they alighted from a job. Working together to recover the treasure, the two men decided to pick up Fafhrd's wife and retire to Mouse's hovel to celebrate with his wife. The four proceed to get very drunk, and the wives commiserate the life of a thief’s wife. As the wives get to know each other they learn that each has pledged vengeance against Kovas, the Lord of the Thieves for crimes he has committed against them and their families. As the night and alcohol wear on the women convince the men to redeem their reputations. In a fit of drunkenness the men make off to the Thieves’ Guild, promising only to do reconnaissance. They secret their way into the Guild house disguised as beggars (the Beggar's Guild and the Thieves Guild share the same domicile). Before being captured they observe Krovas' magician Hristomilo dispatch his giant rats and his familiar, a vile monkey like creature named Slivikin on some unknown errand. They are nabbed and brought before Krovas where their deception is pierced. They use force to escape, killing a few guards. They return to Mouse's quarters only to learn that Slivikin and the rats have killed their wives and burned the rooms in retaliation for stealing from the thieves earlier in the night. Their revenge is rage fueled and almost biblical.

This story is probably the best written story that I have read in the past year. Leiber is a master of the written word, and this piece is an excellent example of what a talented wordsmith can accomplish with genre work. Leiber's characters were excellently drawn; his settings were masterfully placed, and kept in the background where they belong; the plot was amazing; Leiber moved the story along effortlessly to its conclusion, and his use of the more subtle tools of foreshadowing, tension building, and even the use of silence was excellent. There are so many worthy quotations from this book that I don't quite know where to start. Here is the opening paragraph. Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser are waiting ahead for the two master thieves of the Guild who have just robbed a store in Lankhmar:

"Silent as specters, the tall and the fat thief edged past the dead, noose-strangled watch-leopard, out the thick, lock-picked door of Jengao the Gem Merchant, and strolled east on Cash Street through the thin black night-smog of Lankhmar, City of Sevenscore Thousand Smokes.

Leiber also masterfully turns the tables on the reader once Fafhrd and the Mouse return to the Mouse's home. Up until that point it had been a fun romp through Lankhmar by two intoxicated master swordsmen, and the language of the story reflected that tone very well. In reply to the wives request to do something about Krovas, the Mouse replies:

"Come now, pet," he cried lightly as he danced about the room, silk-stuffing more cracks against the thickening night-smog and stirring up and feeding the fire in the stove, "and you too, beauteous Lady Vlana. For the past month Fafhrd has been hitting the Guild-thieves where it hurts them most - in their purses a-dangle between their legs. His highjackings of the loot of their robberies have been like so many fierce kicks in their groins. Hurts worse, believe me, than robbing them of life with a swift, near painless sword slash or thrust. And tonight I helped him in is worthy purpose - and will eagerly do so again. Come, drink we up all." Under his handling, one of the new jugs came uncorked with a pop and he darted about brimming silver cups and mugs.

But after they return home and find Hristomilo's handiwork, and realize that they watched him as he dispatched Slivikin on the mission and conjure a spell to help:

Student thieves poured out of the doors ahead at the screeching and foot-pounding, and then poured back as the saw the fierce point of flames and the two demon-faced oncomers brandishing their long, shining swords.

One skinny little apprentice - he could hardly have been ten years old - lingered too long. Graywand thrust him pitilessly through as his big eyes bulged and his small mouth gaped in horror and plea to Fafhrd for mercy.

And still later after killing and becoming drenched in blood:

Their madness was gone and all their rage too - vented to the last red atomy and gutted to more that satiety. They had no more urge to kill Krovas or any other of the thieves than to swat flies. With horrified inner eye Fafhrd saw the pitiful face of the child-thief he'd skewered in his lunatic anger.

I still can not say that I like fantasy, since most of it makes me want to hurl books across the room. But I am forever now a convert to Fritz Leiber's fantasy. This story is an absolutely golden example of what can be done with the "honor among thieves" motif. Leiber builds up both sides of these rich character's antipodal personalities very well, and really shows how the dichotomy in that motif works.

A Meeting with Medusa, by Arthur C. Clarke, (1972): Lots of people out there feel that Arthur C. Clarke can do no wrong. I do not happen to be one of those, but I do greatly respect the man, and I will read anything he wrote at least once. Fortunately much of what he wrote during his very long career was excellent. Along with Heinlein and Asimov Clarke is probably one of the most recognized names in our genre, and that recognition is deserved. I do not have to tell you how glum I was the day he passed, even if it was expected and natural. Even if he had not written in years and probably would not have again, there was a finality about it all that moved me. Today's review is of Clarke's 1972 novella A Meeting with Medusa, and its a page turner. Four out of five stars.

A Meeting with Medusa is a first contact/inner system exploration story with a huge hook, and even an additional theme that shows up at the end of the story. It is about a very competent lighter-than-air pilot, who has learned to be the best pilot in the world the hard way. A number of years before the expedition the pilot, Falcon, was the captain of the QE IV, an enormous dirigible airliner that crashed and caused him great bodily injury and killed hundreds. Fifteen years after the crash when a mission to Jupiter is planned Falcon gets himself appointed as the mission commander and pilot by demonstrating to the planners that because of time lag remote craft will not work. The mission is changed, and Falcon is made the pilot. After reaching Jupiter, Falcon descends in his craft and levels out at a predetermined elevation in the Jovian atmosphere, and there encounters first the building blocks of life, then complex life. After navigating through a beautifully described pyrotechnic atmosphere Falcon comes across giant man-o-war like gasbags that are so huge that they mass over 100 million tons each. He watches them as they are hunted and preyed upon by smaller giant manta ray like pack creatures, and and observes them defend themselves and kill their hunters with powerful bio-electricity bolts. He tracks them until they become aware of his presence and reach out to him, then he narrowly escapes physical contact by using a nuclear ramjet to get back into the upper atmosphere for retrieval.

One of the things that I most love about Clarke is his ability to reduce complex scientific principles and complicated plot twists to simple and understandable language. I think that was Clarke's special gift. Just compare Kubrick's film version of 2001: A Space Odyssey with the book version by Clarke and you will see exactly what I mean. But Clarke also had a great ability to give flash-bang, and by that I mean that the fireworks jump in the mind's eye that much easier because his descriptions are so colorful and well drawn.

There was a sharp explosion and an instant loss of weight. Kon-Tiki was falling freely, nose down. Overhead, the discarded balloon was racing upward, dragging the inquisitive tentacle with it. Falcon had no time to see if the gasbag actually hit the medusa, because at that moment the ramjet fired and he had other matters to think about.

A roaring column of hot hydrohelium was pouring out of the reactor nozzles, swiftly building up thrust - but toward Jupiter, not away from it. He could not pull out yet, for vector control was too sluggish. Unless he could gain complete control and achieve horizontal flight within the next five seconds, the vehicle would dive too deeply into the atmosphere and would be destroyed.

With agonizing slowness - those five seconds seemed like fifty - he managed to flatten out, then pull the nose upward. He glanced back only once and caught a final glimpse of the medusa, many miles away. Kon-Tiki's discarded gasbag had apparently escaped from its grasp, for he could see no sign of it.

But Clarke also brings a human feeling to his books, and was especially fond of irony. When discussing the prime directive with his managers before launch, and after being told that the discovery of life would completely change the focus of any mission:

Falcon was getting rather tired of this advice and recalled a TV discussion he had once seen between a space lawyer and an astronaut. After the full implications of the Prime directive has been carefully spelled out, the incredulous spacer had exclaimed: 'Then if there was no alternative, I must sit still and let myself be eaten?' The lawyer had not even cracked a smile when he answered: 'That is an excellent summing up."

There's still a lot more to this book, but I am not going to spoil it. But its really itching at me because I have so much to say about the end and what it means. Its has major social and future-of-the-race implications, and its driving me mad that mentioning it will completely spoil the effect that Clarke had in mind. Hell, I might have done that already, and I am sorry if I did. Anyway, get the thing and see for yourself.

Home is the Hangman, by Roger Zelazny, (1976): Although Zelazny was probably best known for his epic fantasy series The Chronicles of Amber, one should never forget that he was first known for a number of high quality novels and novellas that he produced during the 1960's and 1970's. During that phase of his short-lived literary career he managed to put out about 20 novels, a couple of which won some major awards, and innumerable novellas. This one, Home is the Hangman came in 1976, and is one of two best known Zelazny stories, the other being A Rose for Ecclesiastes. Four out of five stars.

Home is the Hangman is the story of mankind's first attempt to create an artificial intelligence gone awry. Its told in a vaguely noirish American murder mystery style. Alan is a man who lives off the grid, and has the technical know-how to keep it that way. He was involved in a project along with a few others that implemented a national database system to keep track of citizen’s movements. Using the tools he developed to put that project together "Alan" is capable of assuming just about any identity he desires, and frequently hires himself out for dirty work that someone on the grid could never get done. Now he has been asked to help four people: A cyberneticist, a physician, a senator and an engineer, some of whom believe that they are being stalked by an AI that they collectively birthed, named Hangman.

Twenty years before the present Hangman was sent to Io to explore and survey for mineral exploitation. After performing his job diligently for a number of years Hangman started to behave oddly, and eventually cut off contact with Earth. Now certain of the four believe that Hangman has returned to Earth and is trying to systematically murder them all. There is more than enough proof that Hangman has returned to Earth, but the question remains whether he is back to kill, or for some other reason. Things start to get hairy when the cyberneticist, then the psychologist turns up dead.

What really makes this story interesting is not the atmosphere of it, but the way that Zelazny treats his AI creation. In this case Hangman was a construct that could think like a human, but needed to be taught right from wrong like a parent teaches a child. To do this the four who created him would plug into Hangman and use his body to interact with the environment and people in it. Hangman was present as well, of course, and could learn by direct experience and by observation. Unfortunately, during one of his training sessions an accident occurred. The four had been drinking and they decided to take Hangman out to a nearby town, and while they were there they were startled by a bank guard and killed him with one of Hangman's enormously powerful, steel arms. To save their own careers they put Hangman away that night and hid their crime. At least two of the team thought that Hangman had some sort of a psychotic break on Io as a result of the murder, though most of them agreed that Hangman was back to kill them all for what they did. And that is certainly the way it looks up until the end, when Zelazny turns the tables on us and shows us how guilt and remorse can morph into kindness and respect. The ending of this marvelous tale is homage to the resiliency of the "human" psyche that some, I suspect, will find moving. This is available under its own cover, and in countless anthologies, so you should have no trouble finding it.

The Persistence of Vision, by John Varley, (1978): Though the utopian subtheme is popular in science fiction, I think it is right to say that most of the so called "utopia" books out there actually have a dystopic slant, in that most of the novels I am aware of tell the story of a failed utopia. That certainly is the kind of situation that lends itself to drama which of course, fiction is largely about, but after completing John Varley's The Persistence of Vision, I must say that if you have a neat enough idea, you can make a utopia tale work. This one suffers just a tiny bit because it drags a little in places, and because the story just kind of wound out in the end. Four out of five stars.

The Persistence of Vision takes place in the near future, in an ecologically, economically and socially ruined U.S.A. There are refugees fleeing local wars, there are food riots in all the major cities, a big depression is in full swing, and a China Syndrome type meltdown has occurred in the south east states, earning virtually every town there the nickname of “geigertown.” The protagonist of the story sets out from Chicago after being RIF’ed from his current job. He sets out on foot to the west coast where he intends to get a job on a ship headed to Japan, where things are better. Along the way he falls with several communes in New Mexico and Arizona. Most of the communes are holdovers from the 1960’s, and they are self sufficient in that they grow their own food. So as he travels, he stops for lengths of time and learns how the various communes live. He leaves each time because for one reason or another, usually drugs and/or laziness, the communes fail, or he gets tired for a while of the orgiastic lifestyle. As he walked across the Hopi and Navaho reservations in northwestern New Mexico and northeastern Arizona, he came across a beautiful walled commune that was home to a population of people who were blind and deaf. The communals mothers had contracted a form of Rubella during an outbreak decades before, and had all been born without the ability to see, hear or speak. Many of the children were abandoned, so the government at the time set up a place for them to live and gave them all stipends and disability benefits. The children saved their money, and with the aid of patient and loving teachers they devised a method of communication with their hands, called touch speak. Some graduated from the program and became rich and famous and the group eventually saved up enough money to buy the commune, and had local contractors and attorneys build it for them.

The commune itself was a marvel of design, well planned out for the blind to tend to the work of maintaining a commune. Paths were well set out and were etched with specific icons that could be felt with the toes. Rows of crops were marked with touchable signs and everything was kept in certain locations. Varley spent a lot of time describing the commune, as well as how it was built. The purpose of all of it was to show how self sufficient and motivated the people who built it were. But the greatest thing about these people was the way that they communicated. It must have been a sensual and wonderful way to communicate. They were masters of body movement and could ask questions of those with ordinary senses such as “where did you go to college,” without words. But amongst themselves they had multiple levels of ‘’touchspeak.” The first level involved finger movements in each other’s palms. More advanced methods of touchspeak could occur with different body parts. The people, who Varley referred to as “the students,” since they taught themselves virtually everything they needed to know about how to survive on a commune, could quite literally not communicate with each other if they were touching. They had large communal, orgy-like sessions where the purpose was not to copulate (though some would, or course), but to communicate with each other with touchspeak. A flutter of a particular muscle against a certain body part sent a precise message, as did flutters of eyelashes against the eyebrow, or the cheek, or what have you.

As I became more fluent in handtalk, “the scales fell from my eyes.” Daily, I would discover a new layer of meaning that had eluded me before; I was like peeling the skin of an onion to find a new skin beneath it. Each time I thought I was at the core, only to find that there was another layer I could not yet see.

I had thought that learning handtalk was the key to communication with them. Not so. Handtalk was baby talk. For a long time I was a baby who could not even say goo-goo clearly. Imagine my surprise when, having learned to say it, I found that there were syntax, conjunctions, parts of speech, nouns, verbs, tense, agreement and the subjunctive mood. I was wading in a tide pool at the edge of the Pacific Ocean.

And of the language itself:

Now this is going to sound crazy, I know. It sounded crazy to me when I thought of it. It dawned on me with a sort of revelation that (Pink’s) word for talk and mine were miles apart. Talk, to her, meant a complex interchange involving all parts of the body. She could read words or emotions in every twitch of my muscles, like a lie detector. Sound, to her, was only a minor part of communication. It was something she used to speak to outsiders. Pink talked with her whole being.

Soon after arriving on the commune the man met a 14 year old girl, and they fell in together. The girl, whose name was Pink (names were fluid things to the Students) was a child of two of the Students, and could see and speak. She was his indoctrination to the culture and rituals of the commune, and eventually they fell in love. Pink was also the man’s language teacher. The man did not mind being touched; if he had, he would not have survived a day at the commune. But as he spent more and more time at the commune, he gradually found himself wanting to stay there more and more. Eventually he made up his mind to give up on outside society altogether, and petitioned for admission. But a problem arose. The society of the Students was the most open that the man had ever encountered, and he found that as he learned more of the language, and progressed to the upper stages of the language, he had trouble with the idea that he was always communicating and could hold nothing back. That phase of the language was a subjective mode of communication, where the “speakers” would build up their own lexicon to communicate ideas that they would understand. That was the nature of higher level touchspeak. To touch was to tell, and those who were touching others could not hold anything back. The man found this disconcerting, and he just could not get over it. So with great sadness he left.

The story does not end there, but I think I’ve spoiled enough for today. Varley created something really beautiful here. The Students are some of the most loveable people I have ever found in SF. There was a hippy loveliness about them that really made the pages of this story glow with an aura as I read it. Get this one and read it on a rainy day.

Enemy Mine, by Barry B. Longyear, (1979): Very often I have heard people ask about books that are as good or better than the movies that they were made into. When I am asked that question the first two movies that pop into my head are always Blade Runner, from Philip K. Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electronic Sheep, and the Clarke/Kubrick collaboration 2001: A Space Odyssey (though in the latter's case the book came from the screenplay). Perhaps because Barry Longyear's book Enemy Mine was not big, though the Wolfgang Petersen film that came from it was, but this one comes in at number three for me. Four out of five stars.

This is another of those SF novels that really touches you. In the beginning it is a military SF piece. A human pilot named Davidge and his Drak counterpart named Jerry have shot each other down over a remote outback planet. Their ships land in roughly the same place and they both quickly realize that they are going to have to team up and work together if they are going to survive. So the start to horde wood and food in the cave that turns into their home for the next several years. One day Jerry told Davidge that his people are hermaphrodites, and that he has become pregnant. With a baby on the way Jerry began to prepare as best he could, but when its time came Jerry died in childbirth leaving Davidge to raise a baby Drak.

Longyear’s story is about the value of collaboration, but it is not a pie-in-the-sky type of story. At first Davidge is so frightened by the idea of raising a baby alien, and an enemy no less, that he almost murdered the baby multiple times. But the baby, Zammis, matured quickly and soon it came to view Davidge as its father. Before Jerry died Davidge had memorized the story of Jerry’s family back two hundred generations as a way to pass the long days. After Zammis matured Davidge taught the litany to him, which was an important part of the Drak rite of passage.

Zammis was eventually given a chance to recite the story to older make Draks, as the two were rescued. By the time rescue came the Draks and the Humans had made peace, though it was a shaky peace at best. Jerry and Zammis were became famous as a symbol of the peace, but the reality of the situation was that both were horribly hazed by others when they got back to their respective empires. Jerry also found that he longed for his “son” and travelled to the Drak empire to be reunited with Zammis. The two eventually founded a colony on the planet that Jerry and Davidge crashed on to escape social stigma and live happily ever after.

This story really does have a SF fairy tale feel to it, but I think that is part of its charm. The book is somewhat different than the movie, though the differences don’t really become apparent until after Davidge meets the miners in the movie. Of course this story is also a coming of age tale, but its more Davidge’s tale that it is Zammis’, in that Davidge realizes what is important in life and what his place is once the young one comes along. This quote is taken from a dialogue between Davidge and his imagined ghost of Jerry. Zammis is new born and will not eat, and Davidge is at his wits end:

”Davidge, you don’t even know your family line beyond your parents, and now you say that you refuse to know that of your universe that you can know. How will you know your place in this existence, Davidge? Where are you? Who are you?

I shook my head and stared at the grave, then I turned and faced the sea. In another hour, or less, it would be too dark to see the whitecaps. “I’m me, that’s who.” But was that ‘me’ who held the rock over Zammis, threatening a helpless infant with death? I felt my guts curdle as the loneliness I thought I felt grew claws and fangs and began gnawing and slashing at the remains of my sanity. I turned back to the grave, closed my eyes, then opened them. “I’m a fighter pilot, Jerry. Isn’t that something?”

That is what you do, Davidge; that is neither who nor what you are.”

That is why I think that the birth of a child was really the impetus for this story, rather than some need of the author’s to write a story about peace and how to achieve it. This one leaves you with the warm fuzzies, but to get there Longyear takes you through a nightmare. I loved it.

The Saturn Game, by Poul Anderson, (1981): The Saturn Game by Poul Anderson is the story of an eight-year journey to explore and colonize the Saturnine system by an immense colony ship. The ship contains a microcosm human society, and needs only to be set down on ground to become a village. The ship crew is a carefully selected gropu of men and women who together fill all society's needs, and includes engineers and scientists and clergy and psychologists, and many others. But for some reason, even with all those thousands of people in the ship, it was decided that the journey would be so boring that a role playing game for the entire crew would have to be designed, so that the crew could pass its time in peace and quiet. This is the story of such a game gone wrong. Two out of five stars, but only grudgingly because technically the book meets the two-star definition. One star for style.

The gist of the story is easy to tell. The colony ship nears Iapetus and a few shuttles are launched for exploration. Three of the exploration crew are dropped on the moon while the commander waits at a distance with the shuttle. The environment is, of course, more dangerous than the crew expects, an accident occurs and someone dies. The captain launches in the shuttle to rescue the remaining crew and wrecks.

Anderson is the epitome of hard SF writers, so the scientific aspects of the story are interesting and believable, particularly the descriptions of Iapetus and Saturn. But the crew is so into this stupid game that they play, that they frequently shift into and out of the game world while they are doing their jobs in the deadly environment of Iapetus. It is a total immersion game, complete with a full range of sensual stimulation, with electronic aid, of course. But by the time the crew has reached the Saturn system and begun the descent to Iapetus, all of the crew has their roles and characters down so well that they can play as they do their jobs, and even away from the computer. Personally, I found the constant references to characters and plot of the game to be incredibly annoying as well as virtually impossible to believe. I could not fathom how a group of highly trained astronauts who are on a mission so far away from Earth that radio contact with Mission Control was impossible could allow themselves to be distracted even for a second while completing the various tasks that life and death are hinged on. I think what Anderson was trying to say, at least in part, was that they were so immersed in the game that it became a shadow of their reality, and that they were so competent at entering their characters lives that they could actually bring the characters out into the real world and do their jobs as them. But it still was nothing but annoying as far as I was concerned. I could not stand the notion that they were standing on Iapetus, staring at the most beautiful planet in our system; Saturn, and all they could do was pretend that they were a knights in a tower with their beautiful damsels at their side. Forget it! I am not buying it for a second, and even if I had read this thing as the role-playing game junkie that I was in my early teens, I still would not have bought it for a penny, much less a dollar. The fact that this book won a Hugo and a Nebula will never cease to amaze or shock me. It just does not deserve it.

Ultimately I think that Anderson's real message here is that the game was a bit of a mixed blessing. It did manage to get the crew into some pretty hot water, but it also gave them the fortitude and will to persist in a near-impossible task and walk out of the ice field to salvation. Still though, I don't care. By the time I got to that point I hated the characters so much that I was jealous over the dead one who didn't have to put up with them anymore. One star for this utter failure of a story, and a warning to stay the hell away. Oh, and forget quotations. I don’t want to waste the time.

Hardfought, by Greg Bear, (1982): This one is an award winning piece, but I really had trouble getting through it. It is just too different; it is not easily accessible. In the story humans are at war with an ancient race of beings called the Senexi. The Senexi differ from us in important ways, including the rapidity of their cultural and technological development. They cannot keep up with our innovation, and although they can be as brutal as humans are, they fear that they will ultimately lose the war because of this difference. As a result the Senexi have begun cloning human beings and inserting them onto battle grounds at critical points to wreck havoc on our lines of attack. Doing this is not difficult as humanity has come to clone its most successful and compenent warriors, and sends armies of them into battle together. Our clones look exactly alike, so its easy for the Senexi to insert their agents. In the story a newly trained young clone named Prufrax has been trained since birth to combat the Senexi using a powerful golve-weapon. She is only "five ship-years old," whatever that means, when she is sent into her first battle, a raid on a Senexi research ship that is conducting genetic experiments on a number of Prufrax clones as it orbits a nebula. The Senexi also have a device called a mandate, which rigorously runs human ship life and is an electronic repository of human culture and values. The Senexi have no such devices, as their brains are adequate to that task: They are like biological computers, but they compute slowly. In fact, they are a hive mind that is arranged in pods of five indivuduals which contribute mental capacity and defense to each of the individual minds. Aryz, a former member of a pod of Senexi has been excommunicated from his race as it is thought he will be irreparibly harmed by working with and educatin the human clones. It is a task he happily completes for his race.

As the Senexi ship continues on its endless orbit the humans attack and almost destroy the entire Senexi ship. Most of the ship self destructs, but a small portion of it that contains Aryz, Prufrax and her clone, and the mandate slip into some sort of "lesser geometry," and emerges billions of years in the future after the nebula has collapsed into stars which in turn have aged to the halfway stage of their life cycles.

I found some similarities between this book and Ender's Game, which was published three years after Hardfought. Prufrax was born to her job of combattant, and she was subected to rigorous training as well as pre-birth memory placement, artificial aging and resizing, multiple surgical procedures and forcible mental brainwashing to prepare for that job. Profrax has virtually no concept of "pleasing," or "beautiful" because she has been so completely indoctrinated into ship-life and the life of a soldier, and engages in mating only to donate her genetic material to the ship, which will be used only if she proves her worth by surviving battles. But the tone of this book was much darker, and Prufrax was never beset by the feelings that Ender Wiggin was dealing with, which was primarilly choosing which aspect of his personality (those aspects that reflected the nurturing influence of Valentine or sadistic influence of Peter) would become dominant. She simply was what she was; largely because of the military's intervention in her pre- and early life, but nonetheless, she never dealt with Ender's issues.

My advice is to skip this one, and go on to some of Bear's more important and less confusing later works. Two out of five stars.

Sailing to Byzantium, by Robert Silverberg, (1985): In about the mid-phase of Robert Silverberg's very long and illustrious career he penned a series of novellas based on famous poems. Sailing to Byzantium and Tom O'Bedlam, both named directly after the poems that they referenced, won best of awards for the years they were published in, 1984 and 1985 respectively. The title has since been added to a Silverberg anthology of original novellas, all five of which find the kernel of genesis in a classic English language poem. I like to say that they were produced during the high point in his career, but the thing is you need to go all the way back to 1968 to find the time of his first upswing. With any author other than Silverberg a fifteen year career high is just ludicrous. Not so with Silverberg.

This is an odd little novella that focus strongly at first on setting, then in the end on character. The novella is about a civilization of fiftieth century humans who spend their time travelling between one of five cities on Earth. The citizens are outwardly somewhat Eloi like, in that none of them really have a good idea what the prupose of their lives is. They are served by a large population of robots and "temporaries," who seem to be manufactured people of very limited intelligence. The five cities are taken down by the robots at infrequent intervals, and new cities from Earth's past are put up in its place. The male main character, Charles Phillips, is a twentieth century man who one day found himself in the future. He met and fell in love with a local, who unlike virtually everyone else on the planet, is aging and will eventually die of old age.

The magic of this story really is in the prose though, and that is were Silverberg puts his best foot forward. His descritpions of scene and character are rich and amazing. The main character's stories are fascinating. Phillips exploration of the physical world and his own personal situation just pull the reader right through the work, and really leave you begging for more at the end. And actually that is really the only serious flaw that I can find with the novella: Its too short. Silverberg really doesnt leave any part of his story untold. Instead, I found myself just wanting more generally. If you get this book, go for the collection noted above. You wont be sorry.

The Last of the Winnebagos, by Connie Willis, (1988): Connie Willis is not one of my favorite authors. Personally though, I usually either love or hate her work. I have not really read much: A few stories, a few novellas, and To Say Nothing of the Dog, which I did not enjoy. This book started out as one that I was going to hate. It took some time to get going, and before it really found its stride I thought it was quite boring. But before the mid-way point Willis transformed this story into one of the most complex, interesting and heartfelt tales I have read in years. It is about guilt, and making up for past mistakes, and parts of it hit me like a prizefighter's trick left-hook. Four out of five stars.

I mentioned that this story is very complex. I do not think that I have read a genre tale that was as layered and deep as this one, and please don't think that I am saying that in the heat of the moment. This story really unfolds like a flower in the sunlight, and just when you think you have the thing dialed in, Willis takes an unseen curve and goes in a totally new direction. Certainly the plot here is the main element, second (by far) to setting, then character. The Last of the Winnebagos takes place in the year 2008, this year, but was published in 1989. The world is changed a bit, but it seems to be pretty much what we know. There is a horrible water shortage in the southwest that seems permanent, as the highway system has been given over almost exclusively to trucks that transport water into the cities. That suggests some environmental damage, but Willis is careful to point out that flora and fauna are both thriving, save for one family; the canidae. Sometime in the past a series of canine plagues struck in rapid succession and in short time all dogs on the planet had died. Some think that an enemy engineered the plagues, but most seem to think that the diseases arose in the puppy-mills and just spread quickly. Regardless of the reason, man's best friends are all dead and gone, and that element colors the story with a deeply felt sadness that the mind has trouble getting past.

The story itself is about McCombs, a photojournalist who has been dispatched with a new kind of completely automatic camera, called a eisenstadt, to do a story on a couple in their eighties named Ambler who live out of a Winnebago full-time. RV's have been made illegal in all but four states, so the Amblers are throwbacks of a kind. On the way to the interview McCombs passes by a jackal in the road that has been run over by a car. Jackals were imported to take the place of the dogs, but never really caught on because their nature just does not favor domestication. As it is a major crime to either hit a canine in the road or fail to report a witnessed accident of that type, McCombs pulls over at the next town and anonymously reports the crime. Shortly thereafter McCombs is visited by "The Society," or the S.P.C.A., who now have police powers and are the strong arms in a slightly 1984-like society. After observing the carcass in the road McCombs starts thinking about the automobile-related death of his own dog, Aberfan, fifteen years before. Aberfan at the time was one of the world's last 100 dogs. He was struck and killed by a sixteen year old girl in a jeep on a snow-covered Colorado street. McCombs never got over the death of Aberfan, not only because Aberfan was his companion, but because he had survived the first and second waves of disease, and may have lived to be the last dog on Earth. McCombs wonders where that young girl wound up, and has his contact at the newspaper run her down. He is shocked to learn that she now lives very close to him in Arizona. He becomes alarmed when he figures out that The Society has grown into a powerful organization that exercises its power illegally. They illegally check on his net access logs and find out that he has looked the woman up. At the time she ran over Aberfan killing a dog was not a crime, so there was no police report. But McCombs becomes concerned that they will go to her house and interview her, as McCombs himself is an early suspect because he failed to give his name and address when he reported the accident. If that happens, and The Society realizes that the girl killed Aberfan they will stop at nothing to pin this death on her. So he goes to visit the girl, which is awkward at first until they begin discussing their dual guilt in the killing of such a rare and precious animal. McCombs admits eventually that he played a part in the accident, and has a great deal of guilt over the fact that the girl has borne all the fault on herself for years. In the end McCombs figures out what happened, and manipulates the evidence to protect the innocent, and the pure alike.

Readers spend the entire story steeped in the thoughts of McCombs, the main character. Throughout the story McCombs deals with his fears of death as exemplified by the death of creatures and institutions around him, so in addtion to being about fear of death, this story is also about the fear of change. As a photojournalist McCombs dreads the invention of the eisenstadt because he can foresee a time when newspapers will just mail it to a contact at a place where a story is, then just have them put it in front of something and collect it and send it back once its done its job of recording. That the device is so unobtrusive and attracts virtually no attention makes the possibility worse in his mind. He thinks that the device will make him superfluous one day (which was a fear on the mind of many in the early nineties). But Willis does an excellent job winding the threads of all of McCombs fears into one, and in that way creates a kind of confusion that makes all the various fears the same. At the same time he laments that it was not invented earlier. Aberfan used to hate cameras and would attack them whenever he saw them. At the time Aberfan was hit and killed, McCombs had snuck across a road to get some photos of Aberfan playing in the snow. The dog noticed McCombs and the camera, and ran across the street to attack it when he was struck and killed.

I looked at the eisenstadt. If I had had it, I could have set it on the porch and Aberfan would never have even noticed it. He would have burrowed through the snow and tossed it with his nose, and I could have thrown snow up in a big glittering sprays that he would have leaped at, and it never would have happened. Katie Powell would have driven past, and I would have stopped to wave at her, and she, sixteen years old and just learning to drive, would maybe even have risked taking a mittened hand off the steering wheel to wave back, and Aberfan would have wagged his tail into a blizzard and then barked at the snow he'd churned up.

He wouldn't have caught the third wave. He would have lived to be an old dog, fourteen or fifteen, too old to play in the snow anymore, and even if he had been the last dog in the world I would not have let them lock him up in a cage. I would not have let them take him away. If I had hd the eisenstadt.

No wonder I hated it.

One of the best things about this story, I think, is that it reads like a mainstream book. It really is not often that you see a genre tale that throws off all of the established SF themes and deals almost purely with human emotions and traits. But this one does it for sure. There is no big robot story here, for example, to wade through before one finds out what Willis is really talking about, even though it is clearly a genre story in that without simplistic use of those themes, it would have been a different book. Anyway, this one is going into the book case and not off to the used bookstore, because I want to read it again someday.

The Mountains of Mourning, by Lois McMaster Bujold, (1989): Another relatively new foray for me in SF are the novels and stories of Lois McMaster Bujold, particularly the Vorkosigan saga. I stayed away from it for so long because it won so many awards, including multiple Hugo Awards for best novels. Yes, I do tend to think that works that have so much popular appeal must necessarily suck, but with these books I have been pleasantly surprised. This book won both the Hugo and the Nebula Awards. Bujold seems to be using each book to explore different literary themes and genres, though all of them are rooted in an SF tradition. This book, The Mountains of Mourning, is a long SF novella with strong mystery elements to it. It is very deep and has quite a bit to say about a number of socially relevant topics. Five out of five stars.

The Mountains of Mourning is set on the planet Barrayar approximately 1,000 or so years in the future. Barrayar was an early Earth colonization and terraform project that was stopped abruptly when the wormhole that gave access closed without warning. With access to Earth totally cut off, all of the scientists that were busy making Barrayar ready for human settlement stopped doing their jobs and just tried to survive. Most of the Earth plant and animal stocks had been moved to Barrayar by that time, as Barrayarian plants and animals were inedible. Since those terrestrial materials had no natural predators at all they dominated the Barrayarian environment. This led to massive deforestation and erosion, and caused a major environmental crash that almost wiped out all life on Barrayar. At the time of the telling of Bujold's tales a new wormhole has been discovered that gives access to Barrayar and trade has resumed, though Barrayar is considered by all to be a back-water dump. Immediately before the wormhole reopened Barrayar had worked its way back up to a late iron-age technology, and had developed an imperial form of government. Since trade with the rest of the galaxy has resumed Barrayar has been flooded with high tech, causing some social disorder.

Barrayar is also at odds culturally with the rest of the galaxy, and in this book the difference that is at issue is the murder of mutant infants. Barrayar has slightly more radioactivity than Earth, and as a result more children than normal are born with congenital defects. During the Time of Isolation, when survival was not a foregone conclusion, the practice of aborting fetus so affected and murder of the infants after birth had developed. But the Barrayarian government has started taking steps to normalize Barrayarian culture, and as a result this practice has been declared illegal. That practice was the central issue in this book. A woman from a distant village called Silvy Vale has trekked to the capital city of Vorkosigan Surleau. Her village administrator has refused to investigate the murder of her infant, who was born with a hare-lip and a cleft palate. She believes that her husband, Lem, murdered the child, thinking that it was a mutant. The Count dispatches his son, Miles, to investigate, try and if necessary, execute the criminal. Miles himself is a product of the new, more lenient policy. Miles suffers from a disabling congenital disability that has shortened his legs and weakened them significantly. He is obviously a mutant, and even though he will one day rule Barrayar, he is the subject of scorn and ridicule, even though it is mostly given silently or under one's breath.

The book is broken up into four parts. In the first, the woman travels to the Count to ask for help. In the second Miles returns to Silvy Vale to look for Lem. Most of the locals are convinced that Miles is up to no good, and will either execute without properly investigating, or is there only for a dog-and-pony show and will execute Lem to “send a message” that infanticide will no longer be tolerated. Although Miles is doing his best to tell the locals that he will not prejudge the man, it is obvious that he has prejudged the culture that produced him; at least until the doctor who has been assigned to travel with him, Dea, reminds him who his audience is:

“These hill-folk are ignorant, lord,” offered Pym after a moment.

“These hill-folk are mine, Pym. Their ignorance is…a shame upon my house.” Miles brooded. How had this whole mess become his anyway? He hadn’t created it. Historically, he’d only just got there himself. “Their continued ignorance, anyway,” he amended in fairness. It still made a burden like a mountain. “Is the message so complex? So difficult? ‘You don’t have to kill your children anymore.’ It’s not like we’re asking them all to learn 5-space navigation math.” That had been the plague of Miles' last Academy semester.

“It’s not easy for them,” suggested Dea. “It’s easy for the central authorities to make the rules, but these people have to live every minute of the consequences. They have so little, and the new rules force them to give their margin to marginal people who can’t pay back. The old ways were wise, in the old days. Even now you have to wonder how many premature reforms we can afford, trying to ape the galactics.”

And what’s your definition of a marginal person, Dea? “But the margin is growing,” Miles said aloud. “Places like this aren’t up against famine every winter any more. They’re not isolated in their disasters, relief can get from one district to another under the Imperial seal…we’re all getting more connected, just as fast as we can. Besides,” Miles paused and added rather weakly, “perhaps you underestimate them.”

Dea’s brows rose ironically...

Bujold did bite off quite a bit with this book, but in the end she expertly tied up all the loose ends, and brought the story back to ground very well. Miles solves the mystery in a Sherlock Holmes kind of way, and renders one of the wisest, most profound punishments that anyone under the circumstances could have come up with. But long before reaching that resolution, Bujold tackled some much larger issues that infanticide; namely prejudices against the disabled, capital punishment and class distinctions, and dealt with them just as excellently.

The only real problem that I found with this book was that Bujold never dealt with the perception that Miles was sent to exact revenge, rather than do justice, or merely “put on a show,” as he was accused of several times. Sending a mutant to execute the murderer of another mutant does smack of revenge, and even though Miles rendered a very even handed and wise punishment to the killer, nobody realized beforehand that this may have been the motivation for sending Miles in the first place. But other than that, this book is virtually perfect, and suffers from no problems at all. I have read a few others of Bujold’s books, and I can pretty easily say that you will be hearing more from me about them. Give this entire series a try.

Copyright © 2008, Gregory Tidwell

Reviewed by GTT · Rating Rating of 4 star(s)


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